Race for House Speaker in 2020-21 coming down to Eric Eisnaugle vs. Tampa Bay

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By the time whoever is chosen to serve as Speaker of the Florida House in 2020-21, there will be a new occupant of the White House and a new governor of Florida. The Sunshine State’s population is expected to be over 21 million by the time of the next census.

By 2020, there will be two more Olympic Games and another World Cup. The much-hyped “Superman vs. Batman” movie will have already debuted, as will the seventh (and possibly) eighth films in the “Star Wars” franchise.

The world, the country, and this state will undoubtedly look very different in 2020 than it does today.

It’s difficult to predict what the pressing issues of the day will be at the start of the next decade, which makes it almost silly to choose now the leaders who will address these to-be-determined challenges and opportunities.

Yet, in the hyperpartisan, hyperactive arena of Florida legislative politics, the race for Speaker of the Florida House in 2020-21 is being run right now and could be decided as soon as two months from now, but almost surely will be decided this year.

The leading candidates for what is arguably the second most powerful job in state politics? One is a “redshirt” freshman legislator from Orlando, who is not really a freshman because he had four years in the Florida House before his legislative district was drawn off the map under redistricting in 2012. Another is a charismatic state prosecutor from north Pinellas County, who must first knock off an incumbent legislator before he can even be considered a candidate for House Speaker, while the third is the only African American Republican in the Legislature.

Even after you read their names — Eric EisnaugleChris Sprowls, and Mike Hill — it’s safe to assume that 95 percent of Floridians have never heard of any of the men, much less realize they are running to be one of the three leaders of state government.

And while this triumvirate of ambitious politicians is generally unknown to the public, Eisnaugle, Sprowls, and Hill are household names to many — lobbyists, staffers, fellow lawmakers — in the state capital, where careers are often defined by proximity to legislative leadership.

So as hundreds of aspirants for legislative office wage expensive, time-consuming campaigns just to win a seat in the House, a second shadow campaign is being waged by the three contenders for the Speakership.

As the race currently stands, it’s more a two-man race than it is the three-person field described above. According to the select group of political insiders who work on and/or follow leadership races — the insiders of the insiders — the Speaker of the House in 2020-21 will either be Eric Eisnaugle or Tampa Bay.

The Process

The presiding officer of the Florida House for the 2020-21 legislative session will not be chosen in 2020. He (or she, although a woman has never served as Speaker) will be named the House Speaker Designate at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session. But even then, the decision as to who will be House Speaker Designate will be made well in advance of that vote.

House members ambitious (and arrogant?) enough to think that they should be first among equals informally and privately collect pledge cards from their colleagues willing to commit their support to the Speaker candidate’s bid.

Rarely, if ever, are these pledge cards revealed to the public — although most members’ support of a particular candidate is known.

Similar ideology plays a large role in one member committing to another, as does geography.

But what often decides who pledges to whom is how much a Speaker candidate supported which members when they first ran for office. And therein lies the danger of Speaker races.

Prospective members are asked to pledge their support to another member, even though the prospective members have yet to win the election, nor have they had much opportunity to measure what the job of House Speaker entails.

Candidates for House Speaker emerge out of their “class” simply by willing themselves to the front of the line.

The next class of legislators will come from the 31 competitive and/or open seats up for grabs (more on that later) during the 2014 election cycle. They will come from all parts of the state — from Bay County in the Panhandle to Miami-Dade. They will likely come from all walks of life although most will have grown up under President Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of which, the next Speaker Designate will undoubtedly be Republican. The current make-up of the Florida House is 75 Republicans and 45 Democrats and it’s probable that gap will increase after November.

This means that the next Speaker will come from a class of a dozen or so Republicans, most elected from safe Republican seats, while some will come from competitive seats like those along the I-4 corridor.

The Class

There are 11 Republican seats in which the current occupant can’t run again because of term limits. Only one of these seats is viewed as competitive by respectable handicappers of state legislative races.

There are 15 other seats that are viewed as competitive, although all but one of them has an incumbent running in them (House District 67 is the only seat out of 120 that can be described as both open and competitive).

Of these 15 seats, eight are held by Republicans, seven are held by Democrats.

Only a handful of these 15 seats is likely to flip from one party to the other. At the top of this list are HD 29, HD 63, and HD 65.

So, doing a little back-of-the-envelope math, the incoming class of Republican House members will probably number 22, give or take — 10 elected from safe Republican seats, nine elected from competitive seats, one elected from an open, competitive seat, and two “redshirt” freshman (legislators elected during a special election can serve five terms).

If you assume that the House Speaker candidate who has the support of 11 members of his fellow class wins, you will be right. And wrong.

“The Sophomores”

Of the last six men who have climbed the cursus honoroum of the Florida House, two are anomalies: Reps. Chris Dorworth and Steve Crisafulli.

Dorworth was in line to be Speaker, but was defeated in 2012 and was never officially designated. Crisafulli was named Speaker Designate after Dorworth’s loss, so he will not have won the speakership in the traditional way.

That leaves House Speakers Dean Cannon and Will Weatherford and Speakers-to-be-but-not-yet-Designates Richard Corcoran and Jose Oliva.

Corcoran and Oliva both defeated their rivals by winning a majority of their classmates’ support. Cannon — the first to win the Speaker’s race in his freshman term — won with the support of members who had supported Bill Galvano over Ray Sansom.  Weatherford won his Speakership with the support of his class AND the votes of members of the class ahead of him.

Whether “sophomores” should count in the selection of the Speaker-to-be is controversial among those who follow leadership races. Whether one believes members of the class ahead should have a hand in selecting the future Speaker often depends on whether the Speaker candidate you support needs their votes.

Technically, the rules say that the class ahead can have a say in who the “Republican Leader-designate” shall be.

According to Section IV (C) 7 of the Standing Rules For Conferences of Republican Members of the Florida House of Representatives, “All sitting members of the Conference shall be voting members for the purpose of electing the Leader-designate.”

Since the “Leader-designate” is selected two years ahead of the Speakership term, fourth-term members of the House are, in fact, sitting members of the Republican conference.

So “sophomores” count, right?

Not so fast, say many lawmakers, including Rep. James W. Grant, a second-term member of the House, who played a pivotal role in both Corcoran and Oliva’s wins.

“It would be insane for a Speaker candidate to not have the support of the majority of their class, but win the Speakership with the votes of members in the class ahead of them,” Grant says.

“What happens when those members are no longer in the Legislature?” asks Grant.

The Factions

The question of whether “sophomores” will have a say in selecting the next Speaker-to-be is one of the issues dividing the current race.

Eisnaugle, a former member, has many supporters among his current colleagues and is, undoubtedly, the most experienced candidate for Speaker. Even those not supporting him agree that Eisnaugle’s experience is a compelling argument for why he should be Speaker.

Unfortunately for Eisnaugle, he may have trouble winning the support of a majority of his classmates.

That’s because the House candidates in districts from the Tampa Bay area — HD 35, HD 38, HD 40, HD 63, HD 65, HD 67, HD 68, and HD 74 — have privately committed, some stronger than others, to electing a member from their region as the Speaker-to-be. Their ambitions are reportedly being encouraged by Speaker-to-be Richard Corcoran.

While none of the candidates from Tampa Bay will say so publicly, their choice for Speaker is Chris Sprowls, a bright, charismatic state attorney who is a protégé of former lawmaker Mike Fasano.

Sprowls, however, must defeat Democrat Carl Zimmermann before he can put his full attention to his Speaker’s bid.

Sprowls has a substantial fundraising advantage and is running in a district with a significant Republican registration advantage, but Zimmermann is an unconventional candidate who could prove difficult to knock off.

With as many as eight votes out of 22, the Tampa Bay delegation could have the largest bloc in the incoming class. But it’s not a forgone conclusion that all eight seats will be held by Republicans and, even if they were, that’s still not a majority of the incoming class.

For his part, Eisnaugle has a smaller base.

He’s hoping that his allies can win one, two, or three seats (HD 29, 30, and 47) from Central Florida, but all of those seats are currently held, capably I might add, by Democratic incumbents.

Still, in addition to himself, Eisnaugle will likely have the support of probable HD 5 winner Brad Drake, as well as the support of the candidates in HD 15, 25, and 31.

Two seats in South Florida — HD 111 and HD 112 — could be pivotal in providing one of the Speaker candidates a majority.

It’s not entirely clear where Mike Hill will find support. He is helping candidates in HD 5 and 6, but even if his people win, he will need to capture several other votes to win a majority. Perhaps the trendsetting Hill hopes to play kingmaker.

The Kingmakers

Standing behind Eisnaugle and Sprowls are two veteran political operatives, Chip Case and Anthony Pedicini.

Case was the right-hand man of former Speaker Allan Bense and is considered as much an expert on leadership races as there is in the political consulting industry. As he is sure to tell you, he has won some leadership races and he has lost some leadership races, but few operatives have played in as many leadership races as he has.

Speaking this month over the phone and during lunch with Case, I came away from the conversations impressed with Case’s passion for his clients and his respect for the institutional integrity of the Florida House. He is not short of opinions, but they are almost all worth hearing. With an inside-the-looking-glass perspective of several of the most recent Speakers’ races, Case has a clarity of purpose that is difficult to argue against.

Pedicini, who declined to comment on the record about the Speaker’s race, is younger and even more aggressive than Case. He is a take-no-prisoners consultant who is as quick to burn the house down as he is to put out the fire. He is fiercely loyal to his candidates and friends and is backed up by a creative team of political operatives. He is a protege of Randy Nielsen and is close to both Corcoran and Oliva.

The race for Speaker in 2020-21 is driven as much by Case and Pedicini as it is by Eisnaugle and Sprowls. Case works for many of the candidates expected to vote Eisnaugle’s way if they are to win, while Pedicini’s clients include many of the Tampa Bay candidates committed to electing one of their own.

It’s difficult to envision either Case or Pedicini losing, but one of them must. At this point, it is not really clear who has the edge.

Eisnaugle has experience, more money in his political committee account, and the likely support of members of the class ahead of him, if they are, indeed, a factor.

Sprowls will likely have the support of more of his classmates, has a Weatherfordian personality, and can make the argument to wavering members of his class that he’s not trying to win the race on technicalities.

If you dive deep inside the numbers, Sprowls’ best chance for prevailing is if, during the primary elections, John Shannon wins in House District 40 and Richard DeNapoli wins in HD 74, and during the general election, Eisnaugle’s allies win but one seat in Central Florida, while Bill Young II wins in battleground HD 68.

Eisnaugle’s path to victory includes picking off one or two of the Tampa Bay delegation who might have their own Speaker ambitions and are turned off by Sprowls, seeing Pedicini’s clients lose their primary elections, and the Republicans sweeping the Central Florida House seats.

What’s most likely is that not all of these scenarios will play out for either candidate and the race will come down to who can win the support of a majority of members from outside the Tampa Bay-Orlando region.

Some say the race for Speaker in 2020 could be a case of deja vu all over again. These folks point to the race between Ben Albritton, Corcoran, and Matt Gaetz, who was a redshirt freshman at the time. Gaetz was on his way to the Speaker’s office until Corcoran made a compelling argument to his classmates that the class alone should choose and not the conference. Gaetz argued that “sophomore” legislators should have a say, probably because he already had a relationship with many of them.

Corcoran prevailed after consolidating his base in Tampa Bay and west Florida and then making a deal with Hispanic Republicans from South Florida. It also didn’t hurt Corcoran that Albritton brought him his votes, which included many votes from the class ahead of them.

Whether Sprowls can pull off what Corcoran did remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: a lot will change between now and 2020.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.